By Barbara Powell

When the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment protecting free speech, they were fresh from the Revolutionary War, during which the vast wealth and power of England were overcome by 13 small colonies intent on governing themselves. The First Amendment was meant to protect a citizen’s right to dissent and to ensure that the minority is protected from the tyranny of the majority.

In the stunning Jan. 21 Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that, contrary to years of state and federal law stretching back to Teddy Roosevelt’s crusades against the power of money in politics, corporations should be able to spend as much as they want to support or oppose candidates in national elections.

Here in Mississippi, just as in other states, we have seen first hand the corrupting influences of money in political campaigns. An egregious example was the 2000 Mississippi Supreme Court race in which Lenora Prather, a sitting justice, objected to attack campaign ads run supposedly in her behalf. She couldn't get the ads stopped, and even the secretary of state was unable to help. Prather lost the race. This, of course, is nothing in comparison to what Big Tobacco, Wall Street and the behemoths of the banking industry can do now that campaign spending regulations have been dismantled by the high court.

In its 5-4 ruling, the Court decided, in essence, that more money in political campaigns does not make it appear that elected officials are being bought, does not undermine the faith of people in their government, does not contribute to a proliferation of smear campaigns designed to besmirch a candidate's integrity in order to defeat him or her. The justices in the majority were unconcerned that ads financed by money from huge corporations might drown out the voice of ordinary Americans.

The Citizens United decision was made possible by the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice

The Citizens United decision was made possible by the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who advertised themselves during confirmation hearings as judicial conservatives. The definition of a conservative is one who wants most things to stay the same. The judicial expression of conservative decision-making is stare decisis, a fundamental tenant of constitutional law that cautions against overturning longstanding law. Citizens United is instead a glaring example of judicial activism.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in a stinging dissent, said, “The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation.”

Stevens further said, “The court operates with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel when it strikes down one of Congress’s most significant efforts to regulate the role that corporations and unions play in electoral politics … . Congress crafted [current campaign law] in response to a virtual mountain of research on the corruption that previous legislation had failed to avert. The court now negates Congress’s efforts without a shred of evidence.”

Common Cause Mississippi and many other citizens’ groups believe the path from here is clear: Congress must free itself from Wall Street’s grip so that Main Street can finally get a fair shake. Congress is now considering proposals to change the way we pay for elections by blending small donor fund raising with public funding to reduce the pressure of fund raising from big contributors.

Mississippians want less, not more, of big money influencing elections. It’s time to give us the best Congress money can’t buy.
Powell is the legislative liaison for Mississippi Common Cause.
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